‘The Last of Us’ HBO Show vs. Game: 10 Differences!

Video game adaptations don’t get any better than this! The long-awaited premiere of HBO’s The Last Of Us is out, and here are 10 differences between the incredible 2013 game and small screen production!

*Spoilers for The Last of Us, game and show ahead*

Hardcore fans and the intrigued alike crowded around their televisions Sunday to watch the 85-minute premiere of HBO’s The Last Of Us. With a staggering 9.5 on IMDB and a 99% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, audiences are already calling it a masterpiece.

The post-apocalyptic drama is an adaptation of the award-winning video game of the same name. The game was written by Neil Druckmann, one of two writers on the show, and was originally released in 2013 by Naughty Dog. Our leading man, Joel, is played by Pedro Pascal, a man who has the angry dad face down pat. Here are 10 differences (and a couple of show-stopping similarities) between the beloved game and its small screen interpretation.

The Show is Set in 2003

HBO’s adaptation is set a decade earlier than the game. We start in 2003 and end up in 2023, rather than starting in 2013 like in the game (the same year as its release). Other than style and music (unfortunately, Joel isn’t rocking frosted tips), this change takes care of a common hurdle in the horror genre: how do we get rid of any plot-hole technology? No smartphones here, just Avril Lavigne and the apocalypse.

Sarah Leaves the House

Sarah, played by Nico Parker, is our first point-of-view character in both the show and the video game. She wakes up on the night of Joel’s birthday, put to bed after gifting him a fixed watch, and falling asleep watching a movie together. She wanders around the empty house looking for her dad.

In the show, she sees an emergency TV broadcast advising citizens to stay inside, only to walk past it into the yard and comfort the next door neighbors’ dog. Seeing said neighbors’ door open, she carefully steps inside, calling out, “Mrs. Adler?” until she slips on a streak of blood. It leads to an older man, Mr. Adler, with his neck ripped out, slumped on the kitchen floor. Just beside him is an elderly woman, previously mute and dependent on a wheelchair, unclenching her jaws from the body of Mrs. Adler. She chases Sarah from the house like a rabid ragdoll, ultimately put down by Joel with a wrench.

In the game, Sarah never leaves the house. She witnesses an explosion on the news as it unfolds outside her window. The scene is soon interrupted by Joel running in through a side door, out of breath, and rattled. Sarah watches, confused and scared, as the neighbor boy, Jimmy, breaks through the glass and attacks Joel. Her dad struggles, yelling the boy’s name before shooting him in the head. In both worlds, Sarah just witnessed her father brutally murder someone, not knowing that things are only going to get worse.

Our heroes are Stopped by a Plane Crash

Joel, Sarah, and Joel’s brother Tommy, played by Gabriel Luna, attempt to escape Austin amidst the outbreak, driving off-road and through crowded streets. At one point, they are surrounded. Backward or forward, droves of screaming civilians and presumed infected rush at their truck in waves. In the game, a car T-bones the family while Tommy tries to find a way out. In the show, however, things somehow get even more dramatic; Sarah looks out the rearview window as an airplane crashes behind them, and fiery debris totals the car and knocks them all unconscious.

We Don’t Know How the Cordyceps Outbreak Started

The first scene of the show follows a late night interview from 1963 with various scientists on a familiar topic: pandemics. The guests describe the horror of a potential widespread fungal outbreak and its real life counterparts in the animal kingdom. Despite the context, we don’t explicitly learn how such a pandemic took hold in 2003 (at least not yet).

In the video game, the opening credits feature snippets of news broadcasts from the beginning of the end of the world. Millions of people caught an unknown illness from infected South American crops, causing global product recalls. Given how the cordyceps infection only needs a couple of days to take hold, these attempts were futile. The announcements quickly devolved into the institution of military law in the wake of a parasitic armageddon.

The Infection Spreads Through Tendrils, Not Spores

One of the most controversial differences between the show and its source material is how the infection spreads. In the game, rotting corpses of the infected emit spores of fungus into the air. Joel and crew carry gas masks with them at all times, and
Ellie proves her immunity to Joel by breathing spores with no ill effects.

Showrunners Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin decided to get rid of spores in the show. In an interview with ComicBook.com, Mazin explained, “In the world that we’re creating, if we put spores in the air, it would be pretty clear that they would spread around everywhere and everybody would have to wear a mask all the time and probably everybody would be completely infected by that point. So, we challenged ourselves to come up with an interesting new way for the fungus to spread.”

The interesting new way is tendrils (or “mycelia” according to my microbiologist mother and show-watching partner). The fandom was skeptical at this announcement, but the change came to a terrifying fruition in the adaptation.

When Sarah discovers the aforementioned infected elderly neighbor, the woman lifts her head with a gaping mouth full of dozens of squirming fungus tendrils. As explained in the show’s introduction, these fungi take hold by infiltrating the host and making them “puppets.” The idea of a fungus wrapping itself around your brain and bursting through your mouth in an attempt to spread is simply horrifying.

The Post-Apocalyptic Military is Truly Authoritarian

There’s no doubt that living in a military quarantine zone with nothing but ration cards and a terrible day job would suck. Just like the show, the video game depicts a bleak, joyless world within the QZ’s walls. But unlike the game, we see explicitly just how far military control has come. After a day of burning infected bodies, Joel walks past a gallows where two civilians are bound and gagged. Their crime? Leaving the QZ without authorization, punishable by immediate public execution. This change makes it easier for the audience to empathize with the ongoing rebel uprising, led by The Fireflies, who are fighting to reinstate the government of the fallen world.

Tess and Joel are Together, and We Know It

It’s no secret that the game implied romantic involvement between Tess, played by Anna Torv, and Joel. Tess isn’t a “roses and chocolate kind of girl,” according to Joel, so we never saw any explicit affection between the two besides undying mutual respect and a pact of protection.

In the show, we see Tess climb into bed with him (as the big spoon, no less). Joel is near ferocious when he learns she got jumped, nearly leaping out of his skin to go take revenge. All I know is this connection will only mean more heartbreak, and I am not ready.

Who’s Riley?

We meet Ellie, played by Bella Ramsey, chained to a heater by The Fireflies, who seem to be studying her. Marlene, played by Merle Dandridge, reprising her role from the game, sits with Ellie before letting her out. She tells Ellie she has a higher purpose with The Fireflies while Ellie calls her a terrorist. Marlene replies, “Was Riley a terrorist?”

If you’re new to the franchise, you have no idea who Riley is, although the look on Ellie’s usually determined and confident face may clue you in. Riley is a character from the game’s DLC, The Last Of Us: Left Behind, which explores Ellie’s backstory and the day she was bitten. For returning fans, we’re willingly in for emotional wreckage, and Riley’s mention in episode 1 already stings.

Robert Bites the Dust (Not in the Way We Expected)

We first meet Tess being interrogated by a guy named Robert, played by Brendan Fletcher. He was meant to sell Tess a working car battery but sold it to someone else while still taking Tess’ payment. He’s terrified of what Joel might do to him if he finds out, and Tess assures him he won’t. Near the end of the episode, Joel and Tess follow a trail of bodies (Robert and his men) and learn they were taken out by a now-injured Marlene.

One of your first missions in the game is to track down Robert. After some stand-offs and murders that teach you game mechanics, Joel and Tess find him in an alley and shoot him in the head. You’re then confronted by Marlene, who tells you she “needed him alive” to smuggle some very precious cargo (who we learn to be Ellie).

“80s Means Trouble”

In the game, we are made to believe that all Tess and Joel have is each other (besides Joel’s now estranged brother, Tommy). The show dispels that idea when we’re introduced to Joel’s apartment through the eyes of Ellie. She reads through what looks like a key to a code. Men named Bill and Frank play a certain decade song to denote different meanings.

We meet Bill far into our journey in the game, and it’s clear he and Joel left off on shaky ground. Not only are they consistently communicating in the show, but something bad is going down to the tune of “Never Let Me Down Again” by Depeche Mode. As Ellie cleverly figures out, “80s means trouble.”

From Sarah’s shirt to the “Curtis & Viper 2” Easter Egg, there are plenty of direct references to the source material in the show, but two scenes perfect the parallels for the small screen and deserve an honorable mention.

After witnessing her father kill who she thought was an innocent neighbor, Sarah piles into a truck with Joel and Tommy as they attempt to escape the city. The ensuing scene in the car put game fans into a trance. The parallels between the game and show were uncanny and eerie, capturing sheer panic and unknowing as if we were Sarah ourselves.

The tension only continues when the group gets separated, Joel carrying an injured Sarah as he runs from a terrifying infected man. Even more dreadful is who stops them: a soldier given orders to shoot to kill. Sarah’s death is just as devastating as playing the game. The misery of a father losing his child is only an inkling of what’s to come, and I know Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey are going to kill it.

We can’t wait to see what the future episodes of the show bring us, including more parallels and differences from the game!

You can catch  The Last of Us every Sunday at 9 pm on HBO and HBO Max!

About the Author

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Christopher Ikonomou

Christopher Ikonomou is a 4th year at the University of California, Los Angeles pursuing Communication and Disability Studies. He has a particular interest in the entertainment industry and representation of marginalized people in film and TV. On campus, he is the Editor-in-Chief at OutWrite Newsmagazine, the oldest queer college publication in the United States, and an activist with the Disabled Student Union. He’s a horror superfan and has been featured by Buzzfeed, UCLA College, Bored Panda, and Teen Vogue for his vocal involvement in the fight for better representation of the disabled community on screen and in the genre, particularly those with Marfan syndrome like himself.